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Perry Robinson dies at the age of 80

US clarinettist and composer passed away on 2 December

US free jazz clarinetist Perry Robinson has died aged 80. Born in New York in 1938, Robinson was the son of composer Earl Robinson. During his childhood, regular house guests included Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Leonard Bernstein. Another was Woody Guthrie, who, as Phillip Clark relays in The Wire 236, would recognise Robinson's creative nature, writing him letters to feed his growing curiosity in music and the arts.

“What my dad, Pete and Leadbelly taught me was to have a free mind,” Robinson told Clark. “They wanted to live in a more inclusive America and when I came across free music, I already had a mind that was open to accept it. That’s why folk and free are the same. I’d take my dad to loft sessions and once he realised he could play what he felt in an intuitive way, he got into out music. ‘Now I understand,’ he told me.”

In the late 1950s, Robinson studied at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. Early on in his career he would work with pianist Tete Montoliu, and later go on to work with the likes of Henry Grimes, Bill Dixon, Carla Bley, Archie Shepp, Charlie Haden, Gunter Hampel, Badal Roy, John Carter, Anthony Braxton, Pete Seeger, George Clinton and many others. He would work as part of Burton Greene’s Klezmokum and of Lou Grassi’s Po Band, and was also a member of Clarinet Contrast, with Theo Jörgensmann and Bernd Konrad.

Robinson's debut album Funk Dumpling was released in 1962 and featured Kenny Barron, Henry Grimes and Paul Motian. He also appeared with Grimes 1965 recording The Call. In 1967 he appeared on Archie Shepp's Impulse! set Mama Too Tight, and it was around that time that he would record as The Uni Trio with David Izenzon on double bass and Randy Kaye on drums.

“In The Uni Trio,” he told Philip Clark, “we’d try and play time but also no time. We would play compositions and tunes but let the phrasing of the melodies determine the pulse. One note in a melody might seem more prominent, so I’d hold it for longer and the pulse would change – time and no time, you see? I also got into what I call ‘automatic writing’. I’d hold my pencil and let it make dots on the manuscript paper. Strange little melodies would appear, and a whole other melodic thing would flow through my mind. My tune, “Unisphere”, appeared in this way and automatic writing changed the way I think about composition.”

In 1990 he released Call To The Stars with his Perry Robinson Quartet, featuring a composition by Grimes, alongside bassist Ed Schuller, pianist Simon Nabotov and drummer Ernst Bier. His Raga Roni trio with Badal Roy and Ed Schuller released their self-titled debut in 2002 on Geetika Records, a year that also saw him appear with William Parker’s clarinet trio on Bob's Pink Cadillac on the Eremite label, and publish an autobiography The Traveler, co-authored by Florence F Wetzel. You can read Philip Clark's article in The Wire 236 via Exact Editions.